FrightFest 2020 – ‘Woman of the Photographs’: The First Masterwork of the Decade

I have problems with my appearance. I don’t always feel this way – some days, I think I look great. Some days, I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. Sometimes I have an issue with stomach fat; other times, it’s the porosity of my skin. Somehow, the issue always changes. The person reading this probably has problems with their appearance. Not liking how one looks seems to be much easier to accept than enjoying oneself. It is often much easier to appreciate someone else’s beauty than to understand our own – which means it’s much easier to compare yourself as lacking to others as well. It’s a mental trap that we place our foot in every single day; it’s horrible, and it’s at-times terrifying how much we hate ourselves for simply appearing. Takeshi Kushida understands this.

Photographer Kai works as a professional photo-embellisher in his studio – touching up any form of photographs for any kinds of occasions. He’s a misogynist, though you’d be forgiven for not knowing this; like many personality traits, it’s very understated. While out photographing the wildlife, he comes across Kyoko, a social media influencer, who sports a large gash upon her chest and some smaller wounds on her face, who he becomes enamoured with despite his misogyny. The two begin to form a strange relationship as Kai retouches Kyoko’s photos, and in turn, Kyoko retouches Kai’s personality – all encapsulated within their own mental traps.

Everything in Woman of the Photographs is executed with precise intention – every frame has a rich and complex composition, with some exploring notions of symmetry, whilst others attempt to capture a sense of community. Every single image feels magical to me, as though there’s an emotional dimension to everything I’m witnessing, that strikes me in some way or the other. Even a simplistic shot of Kai’s studio in the mid-day daylight fills me with a warm and calming sense, reminding me of summers when I was younger. There is a personal vignette for everyone here, where inevitably someone will perceive something that reminds them of a personal moment or feeling that will bond them to the image.

Despite this, there is a deep disconnect between the feeling of the frame, and the emotions of our characters. At its heart, this triptych of characters are all facing a deeply personal loneliness – Kai’s isolation from women, Kyoko’s loss of self, and the businessman’s loss of his daughter. This is often understated throughout, replacing a display of emotion with a immense sense of weight and tiredness to each of the characters; it’s almost as though we can see their baggage pushing down upon them, as they speak with one another, walk through the streets alone, pause to think about something we aren’t privileged to know.

Of course, one of Kushida’s main focuses is on social media, and he imbues it with a sense of the surreal – because isn’t social media surreal in a sense? He seems to understand the social mechanisms that go into manufacturing a certain presentation of the self – Kyoko’s repeated interactions with her past selves through impossible conversations of past posts provide an insight into her psyche, which is only emphasized through the literal spotlighting and heart-shaped lighting that she becomes soaked in. These symbols of performance emphasize how her profile is like her stage, where she performs specifically and exactly to what she believes her audiences wishes to see. While some may argue there’s a lack of distinct horror within Kushida’s feature, I would argue that it is marinated in it – as Kyoko begins to lose her sense of self, constantly chasing this virtual, artificial persona in her hopeless pursuit of achieving a symbiosis with it, we watch a person forget about themselves, as their social persona feeds on their mind like a parasite.

Kyoko’s battle between perfection and imperfection is something universally relatable – at times, I wish I had a perfect body, because I feel as though that would raise my social value. I’m told by friends that I look good in photos, and yet I disagree entirely. I tell myself that my appearance should only matter to me – we’re all told that – but we also know it’s a lie. We are constantly affected by the gaze of others. Constantly re-assessing, re-evaluating, re-designing in an attempt to achieve that perfect balance like Kyoko. She attempts the impossibility of perfection, but then is condemned for her reveal of the authentic. We’re guided by these social guidelines and ideals, but who creates them?

But horror is not all the surreal touches – there is beauty, too. The storyline of Kai’s businessman friend, eventually opening up in regard to his loneliness following his daughter’s death, is as melancholic as it is touching. The idea that photo-retouching is inherently wrong is something Kushida attempts to dissuade, as he explores the positive good it can do – Kai’s re-touching of the businessman’s daughter, presenting how she would appear as an adult, explores the strange semblance of hope and connection that this art can bring. A photograph can fuse an impossible rift closed with a connection between this world and the next, through the preservation of a life. Photographs are not inherently good or bad – they don’t possess a moral compass, nor an understanding of beauty or aesthetic. This is instilled into them by the photographer, by the spectator, by the model; we perceive what we wish to preserve.

Kushida explains that “people often vacillate between their natural selves and their idealized selves”, which is the core of his feature. There’s an instability to the human self that is constantly in flux, shifting and morphing – whether this is good or bad doesn’t really matter to Kushida; trying to represent that flux does. We’re constantly concerned about who we are, stuck within a labyrinth of worries, fears and desires that we are unable to find the way out of – we fail to consider the possibility that who we are is different every single day. Social media clouds that notion, forcing us to manufacture a specific sense of self that fails to capture the nuance and the resonance of the person behind that account. Ultimately, it feeds upon us until we have lost ourselves within it – it takes us, and leaves us with a prop, to be placed within frames that no longer reflect us. We forget that this does not reflect us – we reflect ourselves and are reflected through other people.

Takeshi Kushida just wants us to reflect upon one another again.

This if one of my favorite films of the entire year – please watch it, because it’s a work of art and I truly hope it will touch you in the way that it has touched me.

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